According to various religious observers, religious differences continued to play a role in criminal and civil court cases. The government continued to deny recognition to minority religious groups and maintained its preferential treatment of the MOC-OA.
On February 2, authorities released the head of the Orthodox Archbishopric of Ohrid, Jovan Vraniskovski, on parole for good behavior after spending three years in prison. He had been convicted of money laundering and, earlier, of embezzlement. The Archbishopric of Ohrid stated it split off from the MOC-OA in 2002 to enter in unity with the Serbian Orthodox Church. The Russian Orthodox Church patriarch brokered Vraniskovski’s release during a high-level visit in December 2014, according to the MOC-OA and the Russian Orthodox Church. The MOC-OA requested the release as a goodwill gesture to the Serbian and Russian Orthodox Churches, which opened the door for the MOC-OA to open negotiations with the Serbian Orthodox Church in order to settle the MOC-OA’s status within the Orthodox community. Members of Vraniskovski’s Church stated he had been convicted for his religious beliefs, and the country’s Helsinki Committee for Human Rights called him a political prisoner. The government and the MOC-OA had said the archbishop’s troubles were not related to his religion, but after Vraniskovski stated he had been tortured in prison in 2014 because of his religious affiliation, the MOC-OA asked for clemency for him in December of that year. The court released Vraniskovski on parole in February for his embezzlement sentence. On May 7, the Supreme Court published a ruling, based on its February review of Vraniskovski’s appeal, reversing his money laundering conviction on grounds of substantive and procedural irregularities and sending the case back for retrial. At year’s end, the case was pending retrial before Basic Court Skopje 1.
Basic Court Skopje II received four religious registration applications and denied them on various grounds. In January the court denied the application requesting registration of Christ’s Living Church for failing to list the material basis (funding sources, premises) for the group’s operations. The basic court also denied a registration application from the group Trinitas in Macedonia, citing the applicant’s failure to secure the Ministry of Justice’s written approval to use “Macedonia” in the group’s name and to provide proof the applicant, Aleksandar Vuletic, held citizenship. Vuletic did not appeal the ruling. The basic court denied a subsequent application by Vuletic requesting registration of the Christian community Trinitas, under the justification that the applicant submitted the same preaching materials as those of the already registered Christian church Oasis of the Republic of Macedonia. Vuletic appealed this Trinitas decision to the Skopje Appellate Court, which upheld the basic court’s ruling rejecting the application. The appellate court upheld another decision by the basic court rejecting the registration of the group Titania.
The Orthodox Archbishopric of Ohrid was awaiting a ruling from the ECHR regarding its application to register as a recognized religious organization, which courts had denied on the legal grounds that it could not substantiate the difference between its name and symbols and those of the MOC-OA. The ECHR completed its hearing of the case but had yet to issue a verdict by year’s end. According to the MOC-OA, the archbishopric has a following of approximately 100 members. The archbishopric, which the Serbian Orthodox Church recognizes as the sole legitimate autonomous Orthodox Church in the country, stated the government had subjected it to media harassment and undue monitoring due to its refusal to recognize the MOC-OA’s complete independence from the Serbian Orthodox Church (autocephaly). According to the archbishopric, its membership numbers are in the thousands.
The Bektashi Community of Macedonia (Tetovo), an Islamic Sufi order, continued to await an ECHR ruling on its 2013 appeal asking the ECHR to overturn the Constitutional Court’s declaration that the community’s suit challenging the denial of its registration was “inadmissible for review,” because it contained the name Bektashi, and another group with the same name had previously registered. Bektashi Community of Macedonia (Tetovo) representatives said the ICM sponsored the other Bektashi group and helped them register to block the registration of the “only legitimate” Bektashi community in the country. Although the group remained unregistered, foreign members of the Bektashi Community of Macedonia (Tetovo) were able to obtain religious visas.
In November the ombudsman, an official in the Ministry of Justice charged with protecting citizens’ rights and combating discrimination, and the country’s Helsinki Committee for Human Rights said the involvement of school children in events with a religious connotation served to incite intolerance. At a children’s march in Bitola organized by a public school, the children stated they were there to “celebrate good Orthodox holidays only, and not holidays of other religions.” The ombudsman said the school children were “mistakenly and unjustifiably being used to promote one religion in Macedonia.” The ombudsman urged the Ministry of Education to investigate the children’s march. The country’s Helsinki Committee for Human Rights also condemned the march, stating the government was exacerbating interreligious relations.
The ombudsman called on all public elementary schools to pay special attention to the education of young people and to promote tolerance and respect, rather than misuse the school subject of Ethics in Religions to preach a specific religion. Mayors, local politicians, and local media reported that many of the religion classes offered in schools focused on the teachings of a single religious group, depending on the religious affiliation of the teacher.
In February the leader of the ICM stated the government had illegally wiretapped Islamic leaders, calling it a “psychopathic act” and publicly demanding the government take official legal responsibility for treating him and his associates “as criminals.” A Ministry of Interior (MOI) spokesperson called the allegations “ridiculous.”
Civil society groups, including Nisma, a think tank composed of several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) stated the government was interfering in religious matters, at the expense of secularity, and politicizing religion. . In December Parliament Speaker Trajko Veljanovski said in a speech that “citizens should return to Orthodox Christian values, under the flag of Christ.”
Smaller religious organizations not listed in the constitution, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Bektashi (Tetovo), and the Orthodox Archbishopric of Ohrid, said the government did not treat them as equals with the five religious organizations recognized in the constitution. As examples, they said they were excluded from official events and were not granted the same level of access to government officials. Many religious groups, such as the ICM, the Bektashi (Tetovo), and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, stated the government favored the MOC-OA by granting it unique privileges, such as providing it with public properties free of charge, offering funding for the construction of new Orthodox churches, and providing exclusive invitations for its representatives to attend government functions. The MOC-OA denied any affiliation with the government and said the Church did not involve itself in politics.
In March local government officials attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the erection of a 39-foot Orthodox cross in the Skopje municipality of Gjorche Petrov, and in October government representatives attended the groundbreaking of an MOC-OA church in Prilep. Local media reported the government had helped fund the construction of the cross and church and had also unfairly facilitated the permit process. In February the central government and the City of Skopje provided 87 million MKD ($1.5 million) to upgrade the 217-foot-tall Millennium Cross, which belonged to a nondenominational Christian group on Mount Vodno, overlooking Skopje.